Many years ago when I was a student at Yeshiva University, I formed a friendship with Ezra, an extremely sweet fellow, always with a smile on his face and a warm greeting for anyone he met. I remember him helping me move some furniture and was impressed with his strength despite his lanky frame. So it was with shock many months later that I learned of his untimely death from cancer, a disease which had plagued him for many years but about which he had told almost no one except family and a few very close friends.
From the perspective of Jewish law and tradition, I wondered what should be the proper approach towards revealing a serious illness to others. Should one keep it a secret or should one tell family and friends? This question surfaced in my mind as I watched Bang the Drum Slowly, the story of Bruce Pearson, a major league ball player who is diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, a terminal illness from which he will soon die. Bruce does not wish to reveal his situation, fearful that he will be released from the team.
The film opens as Bruce is leaving the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota with his best friend, star pitcher Henry Wiggen. Because of his friendship with Bruce, Henry refuses to sign his contract unless there is a clause in it tying his future to Bruce’s. Whatever happens to Bruce will happen to him as well. If Bruce is released, traded, or sent to the minors, so, too, will Henry. Since Bruce is a player of only average ability, management does not understand the condition; nevertheless, they agree because of their strong desire to sign Henry.
No one other than Henry knows about Bruce’s illness. In a moment of frustration when Henry is upset at a player for teasing Bruce, he reveals that Bruce is dying. In spite of Henry asking that the information be kept confidential, the news spreads and Bruce is treated differently by his teammates. Moreover, the negativity that existed between some players subsides and a new spirit of solidarity prevails, which augurs well for the team. They begin winning consistently and Bruce emerges as a key hitter in some critical games leading toward the World Series. Clearly, the knowledge that a friend is dying influences the behavior of those who interact with him.
In Jewish tradition, it is commonplace that prayers are offered for the sick, often at the request of the person who is sick. The afflicted one desires the prayers of others because they may be efficacious and bring relief and healing. For those reasons, he reveals private information about himself. However, Judaism excoriates someone who divulges private information about someone else, especially if the information may hurt someone personally or professionally. The Bible definitively states “Thou shalt not be a tale-bearer among your people.”
Bang the Drum Slowly brings this issue of confidentiality into sharp relief. Henry Wiggen decides not to tell anyone about Bruce’s condition because knowledge of Bruce’s illness will probably cause him to lose his job. Objectively, Henry knows there is no absolute evidence that Bruce will play poorly in the months ahead. In fact, people with unpredictable illness may still function superbly on the job and may summon the strength to perform even better than others without similar issues.
In truth, a person who is ill may wish to publicize his condition because he wants others to understand his plight and to offer prayers on his behalf, and that is his choice. In Bang the Drum Slowly, Bruce remains reticent, but the team shares the information with each other, quietly affirming the essential humanity that binds them all together.